Hearing voices
A single rope

The paradoxical cave

A long time ago I went on my first-ever writing course, on Skyros. Not only did I have the most heavenly time on one of the most delectable Greek islands, but I came home and wrote the first novel I wouldn't be ashamed to show you, or my agent. (I wouldn't want it published, mind you, but that's another story). Skyros is the original alternative holiday in the sun, and as well as big name writers teaching what's now called Writer's Lab, it's full of yoga, self-healing, dancing, Tai Chi, windsurfing, meditation, massage and so on. They do get the best teachers/facilitators/coaches but, as always with things alternative, everyone's there to buy into the philosophy, and if you're in the mood to stand outside and find it all slightly, earnestly risible, it's not hard: I found myself writing little caricatures in my head, and smirking as the warm and wonderful clichés rolled out day after day. And, of course, being writers, I and the rest of my group were specialists in standing outside and looking in. For writers detachment isn't just cool, or cynical, or sensible, or all the other kinds of grown-up, it's a necessary condition.

What happened, though, was that for the first time ever I realised I didn't want to stay detached, and that cool and un-fooled wasn't entirely the point. Yes, some things might be absurd, but if I stayed detached I'd miss the ones that were anything but, and if I stood on the margins I wouldn't be well placed to tell which was which. It would be more fun, I realised - more interesting, more rewarding - to get in there and forget about looking risible. But to forget myself entirely wouldn't work either, or being blind drunk for a fortnight would have done the job. To get the most out of somewhere like Skyros you do need some kind of meta-awareness, not so you can stand aside and laugh at yourself or others, but to know what it is that you've found, and map it onto your everyday and creative selves.

That was when I finally understood the necessary schizophrenia of the writer, and the creative artist in general: there is our self, and then there is our slippery double, and it's in the paradox of their simultaneous existence that we must exist. Because as a writer you need to be:

  • engaged so you know what other people's lives actually feel like; detached so you can observe them and find the right words to evoke them for different people again

  • sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, and to the tiny gear-shifts of human feeling and interaction; thick-skinned to keep on writing, and working at writing, in the face of rejection and apparent failure

  • humble, to know there's so much to learn from so many writers; egotistical to believe that what you have to say is worth people's hearing

  • happily solitary for hours of every day; happy to be with people and find out what makes them tick; happy (or at least willing to appear happy) to be a cross between a performing bear and a prize pig on the literary circuit

  • creative in following will-o-the-wisp ideas, mad thoughts, weird conjunctions and connections; businesslike not just in money and contracts but also in being ruthless in protecting that creative core

  • willing to dive in and forget your self in writing; able to watch how best to achieve that state

  • greedy about feeding on others' writing, past and present; willing to start a fiction famine, or even a book famine, when your own writing seems to need it

  • open to human nature and events; willing to shut all of it out at times

  • right-brained in learning to harness simultaneous, trans-rational, intuitive thinking; left-brained in turning that into sequential words, and scenes which make narrative sense for the most number of readers

  • confident that you're a writer to the core; accepting of criticism and judgment

  • wild, enthusiastic, intuitive and willing to pursue apparent red herrings in first draft; cautious, patient, methodical and ruthless in revision

On one hand, it's not easy, on the other it comes naturally as you become a writer. (See? we're still schizophrenic.) You notice that I say 'as you become', because it seems to me that it's immensely helpful to that kind of growth to recognise the necessity of these alternating, even opposing states in ourselves, and learn to court and control them both. Even natural hermits must learn to get out into the world and refuel their tanks; even the naturally humble must learn which criticisms to ignore.

If you haven't read Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead, about the dualism of the writerly nature, I highly recommend it (it's a series of lectures, so it's a pleasure to read). For her this dualism is the essential nature of the creative self, and I was reminded of it again in Mexico, when I discovered that in their mythology caves symbolised both the womb as the origins of life, and the gateway to the underworld of the dead. Storytelling, too, is about history and memory - the old - which in the paradox which is the creative process, gives birth to something new.